Hey guys — sorry for the vacuum of nothingness lately. I’ve been busy graduating early and getting a job. I recently got the opportunity to go to Japan for a mini-vacation before I started real life, and I was able to do a lot. But most of all, I got to EAT. So, to make up for the lack of posts over the past year, here’s a gigantic megapost about Japanese food and most of everything I ate in Japan that I took a picture of before consuming voraciously. Enjoy!
I’m going to say this now, and I’m going to say this forever, and probably many more times in this article: Japan has the best food of all time. You’re entitled to other opinions, but you’d be wrong if your opinion is otherwise. Japan has the most Michelin stars of any country (28 as of Nov 2017, just beating out France’s 27 by 1 star), is one of the oldest countries still in existence today, and is at the cutting edge of modern cooking technique and technology. In short, it’s the best. Don’t @ me. There are dozens of iconic Japanese dishes that have migrated overseas into the rest of the modern world —from commonplace staples such as sushi, tempura, ramen, to imported goods like (true!) Wagyu, delicacies like uni and fugu, and so much more. In fact, some of the trendiest foods currently on social media are of Japanese origin (which, ironically, are of Western origin), such as ultra fluffy pancakes, omurice, cutlets, croquette, crepes, soft-serve, and so forth. Anyways, before I start rambling on about the nuances of Japanese cuisine, I’m just going to cut myself off so that I can talk about the foods I ate.
Just keep in mind — I’m not quite reviewing the food I ate. Everything I ate was delicious and I loved everything I ate. I’ll try not to ramble too long, but probably read this over a snack.
Probably one of the most iconic dishes served inside and out of Japan, sushi is and has been one of my favorite foods growing up and today. Growing up, it was always a celebration food — good grades, birthdays, etc. In college, those who know me well know that I regularly consume my weight in both sushi and faux-sushi in the form of spicy tuna rolls (which, like the california roll and most of your local sushi restaurant’s “special” rolls, are not really Japanese). There are a lot of types of sushi — maki, gunkanmaki, nigiri, temari, sashimi, chirashi, etc. One of the most common ways of eating sushi is nigiri, which in layman’s terms, is just a chunk of fish over a chunk of rice. It’s incredibly simple, and incredibly satisfying. There are a lot of nuances to eating sushi that are either ignored in the US, or nonexistent — not mixing your wasabi with soy sauce, for example, or eating your fish in order of leanest to fattiest. I could talk for hours about this, but I won’t (at least, not in this article). The best thing about eating sushi in Japan, however, is that you can find great sushi no matter the price.
I had a meal of “robot sushi” at Genki Sushi in Shibuya, where you use an iPad-looking device to place an order, which is made by chefs in the back and then placed on these rail-mounted drones, which bring you your order when ready. Each order (around 2 pieces) ranges from under 100 yen (about a dollar) to 500 yen (roughly five dollars) and has a special plate designating the price or style. Which means, you can get a piece of nigiri for about 50 cents, which is insanely cheap. Some pieces, like sea urchin or fish egg, are more premium and more expensive, but as a whole, the price is low and the taste is great. I had varying cuts of tuna, some uni, some seared salmon, and pretty much anything I felt like eating. I think I blacked out while eating because I can’t even remember how much I ate.
On a slightly more premium end, I headed to Tsukiji Fish Market. Tsukiji is the largest fish market in the world, and if you show up at around 3–5 AM in the morning you can see fishermen roll in with colossal fish and nets of clams and octopus and more, yelling prices and drinking coffee or beers. I, not being a morning person, just decided to hit the market around 10 to catch the normal market — (for the normies) and walk around vendors selling street food and sushi. I ended up at Sushi Zanmai Main Branch in Tsukiji Fish Market, which is a fairly famous chain, and decided to order a variety plate of sushi. I can’t remember exactly what I ordered, but looking at my pictures it looks like three grades of tuna (normal, medium fatty, super fatty), squid, pollack roe (which I remember because I didn’t like), white tuna(?), tuna with green onion, ikura, uni, tamago, chives, a giant piece of anago (sweetwater eel), and ebi (sweet shrimp). Or something like that. Everything was literally caught that morning (except the chives and eggs, I guess) and ended up in my mouth hours later.
I’ve had better sushi in the US in the form of overpriced omakase in San Francisco and Manhattan, but for roughly 30~ USD a person, this sushi is some of the best I’ve been able eat in my life.
RAMEN & MORE RAMEN
Another one of the most popular exports out of Japan, ramen is also something I ate constantly growing up. Ramen is quintessential in Japan — from your everyday ramen stalls to the infinite cosmos of instant noodles available to the critically-raved ramen shops, ramen is everywhere. It’s hard to find authentic good ramen consistently in the US, but good ramen in Japan is never far. I’ll shut up about how much I love ramen before I start rambling about different kinds of tare and dashi and how there’s more than four kinds of ramen and
Anyways, my first meal in Tokyo was at Ichiran Ramen in Shibuya. Ichiran is a world-famous chain with locations outside of Japan in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and one in Brooklyn, New York. A really interesting thing (there’s a lot of interesting things about Ichiran) is that after you order a meal ticket from a machine, you get a little piece of paper with options: levels of broth richness, noodle chewiness, chili flavoring, type of onions, side dishes like rice and extra pork, and so much more. It also gives you the option to order kaedama afterwards, which is a order of extra noodles. Also, you eat in individual stalls that can be separated for groups and couples. There’s so much I love about Ichiran, no matter how overrated people may think it is. As my first meal out of a 12 hour flight, my brain literally exploded when I ate this. There’s bound to be better or cheaper options, but I think Ichiran was the perfect first spot for me.
I went to a couple other spots around Japan (and Ichiran again) but they weren’t particularly noteworthy. Ramen is a solid choice for food, no matter where you go in Japan.
Curry is another one of those iconic foods (or maybe I just eat a lot of Japanese food). Japanese curry is significantly different from curry in the rest of the world – for one, there’s not as many variants like Indian or Thai curry. Japanese curry is actually based on the British interpretation of Indian curry way back when. Japanese curry can be made easily with store-bought roux cubes, but eating it at a store makes it taste more…magical. Curry shop practitioners all have special recipes, using their own blends of spices and ingredients. Gogo Curry and Coco Curry are both fantastic chains that serve cheap and delicious curry. I used to eat Gogo Curry once a week last year, and once ate their World Champion Curry (which is so big, they have to serve it on a giant platter).
This time, I opted for Coco Curry when I was in Kyoto and got a spicy curry with pork cutlet. I don’t have much to say about it, except that it was very spicy and very delicious. The chain I went to also had floor-to-ceiling shelves of tankoban manga and while I can’t read much Japanese, I appreciated the aesthetic.
Soba is a form of buckwheat noodle, and can be eaten in broth, dipped, cold, hot, with toppings, or plain. It’s one of the more traditional Japanese dishes, and I had some at Fushimiinari Shrine in Kyoto . I had tempura soba, while my friend ordered nishin soba, with a grilled fish. The taste of soba isn’t as deep or as rich as ramen — it’s lighter and simpler, and more delicate. Personally, I’m a cold soba guy, but on days like this (30 degrees Fahrenheit), I’ll make do.
Soba’s fried cousin is probably something you’ve seen before in the form of Chinese chow mein or other stir fried noodles. Japan’s yakisoba is commonly cooked with vegetables and topped with ginger, bonito flakes, sauce, and kewpie mayo. It’s a staple in street stalls and this entire box was less than 5 dollars USD from a vendor at Fushimiinari.
SKEWERS (YAKITORI, etc)
There is simplicity in yakitori, or any skewered meats in general. Throw some meat on a stick, slather with salt or sauce, and grill until perfect. You can find skewers everywhere — street vendors, izakayas, restaurants, etc. Above is a “wagyu” skewer at Fushimiinari for about 5 USD. True wagyu comes from specific farms and cows and I doubt that you could ever get real wagyu for 5 USD, but the beef on this skewer was fatty and delicious.
This is a Fushimiinari Special — grilled sparrow. That’s an entire bird, coated with a special sauce, and grilled. As you’d expect from pretty much a wild animal, it tastes really gamy. It’s...not bad?
This one comes with a story. My understanding of the Japanese language is…spotty at best. The first few nights I was in Tokyo, I was by myself. I stayed in an AirBnB until I could meet up with my friend Shogo. I had managed to scrape by in Shibuya and Harajuku with my limited Japanese by carefully choosing places and restaurants I knew would have English menus and English speaking staff just in case. After a day and a half , I decided to randomly pick a Omurice restaurant to eat at, despite it not having an English speaking staff. Needless to say, I failed horribly. I won’t give details, but I had a minor mental breakdown and couldn’t remember how to say basic things in Japanese. A very nice couple sitting next to me managed to help me order and then had a delightful if not choppy conversation — they in broken English, I in broken Japanese. Finally, after a friendly but limited conversation, the couple decided to pay for my dinner. I was both incredibly ashamed and embarrassed that they not only helped me out, but paid for me as well. I can’t really remember the flavor of the omurice, but to me, it tasted like guilt.
I love fried food. Korokke, or Croquettes, are another convenience store and street stall staple — essentially it’s a fried little package of whatever you want — the most common ones are mostly potato with some meat inside, you can have fried shrimp or cream crab, or my favorite — menchi korokke, or minced croquette, which just has a bunch of minced meat inside. It’s piping hot and goes amazing with beer, no surprise. I had this one at a very famous stall on Nakamise Street in Asakusa.
Gyoza are pan-fried dumplings of Chinese origin. When I was a kid, my grandparents would make Gyoza for me every day after school. It was that, or Xiaolongbao. So I estimate that I’ve probably eaten well over 10,000 fried dumplings in my entire life already, having eaten 10–12 every other day for about 10 years straight, not including street stalls or restaurants. Anyways, these are from Harajuku Gyozaro in Harajuku, and they’re great. They’re less than 3 dollars for a plate of 6 gyoza, and you can get beer and rice and other tasty stuff.
Katsusando are just Katsu (cutlet) Sandwiches. You can find them in a lot of convenience stores for about 3 dollars. Some have a tiny slaw, some have egg, some are cut triangularly, some are cut into rectangles. They’re all beautiful. One of my favorite snack foods ever.
Onigiri are triangular rice balls, and I love them so much. I wrote an entire article on this, which you can find here.
Japanese people love their sweets, whether it be traditional Japanese sweets, Western sweets, or otherwise. Even their normal food is slightly sweet, which is a little off-putting sometimes. Below is a bunch of sweet food I ate on my trip.
Ice cream and soft serve is incredibly popular in Japan, but I wanted to get something that I could only get in Japan. I’m lactose intolerant, so I rarely eat ice cream nowadays unless it’s worth the pain later. For this, I went to Suzukien in Asakusa. Suzukien is known for having a spectrum of matcha flavors varying by intensity, and having the strongest matcha ice cream in the world. Most people have to pair it with a mild flavor, like sesame or strawberry to eat it.
I had the strongest matcha with hojicha (a roasted tea) flavor, and it was pretty intense. Definitely worth trying if you like tea flavor and matcha things, but just know this isn’t your supermarket-grade “Green Tea” ice cream. Stuff is dynamite.
Dango are glutanimous rice-cake ball-ish things on skewers, and you can get most of them for about a dollar a skewer. You can have them plain, flavored (like green tea), covered in red bean or sesame paste, or like this — mitarashi dango, which is dango coated with a soy-sauce based sweet glaze. It’s got a very interesting sweet-yet-savory flavor that goes well with tea. The one above is from Nakamise Street in Asakusa.
This one was from Kinkakuji in Kyoto (the Golden Temple) is slightly more lavish, with smaller dango but covered in black sesame paste and topped with gold flakes.
The easiest way to explain dorayaki is to say that it’s a kind of thicker red-bean-based pancake confection. They’re either served like this above (think of a dessert taco) with red bean and other things in the middle (I had the option of getting sweet potato or ice cream, and I ended up with ice cream despite my stomach), or as two pancakes with filling in the middle (a la oreo style). Again, this one was from a famous shop on Nakamise Street in Asakusa.
Have you ever eaten something and accidentally swore out loud because it was so good? I accidentally dropped a quiet f-bomb after I bit into this. Pablo is a chain across Japan serving incredibly delicious handmade and fresh pastries, and are known for their Cheese Tarts, which are basically if a fluffy cheesecake and an egg tart had a delicious baby. I managed to find a Pablo Mini in Akihabara, which serves tiny tarts, and they were so good that I not only bought another one immediately, but also bought half a dozen for a friend’s parents. I miss these so much.
Crepes are as delicious as they are trendy — a micron-thin battered circle smothered in cream/pudding/fruit/etc, rolled up in a cone, and topped with more cream/pudding/fruit/etc. Naturally, they’re extremely popular in Harajuku. The line at the famous Marion Crepes nearby was too long, so I opted for a nearby cart — Momi and Toy’s Creperie in Harajuku. Man, this was so good I accidentally bit my finger biting too fast and then my tongue.
These pancakes are made with magic, probably. They’re each over an inch thick, and probably defy gravity. I want my pillows to be made of this. It’s great. You’re basically eating sweet souffle or pudding for breakfast, and I don’t have much more to say about this. I will say though, I might have been the only guy in this pancake shop that wasn’t someone’s dad dragged there by a family or someone’s boyfriend dragged by their girlfriend. Anyways. Go to Shiwase Pancakes in Tokyo. It’s also called Happy Pancake.
Everything in Japan is great. The food, especially. I would easily want to go back and immediately spend another week and a half just eating. I hope you learned something new, or just enjoyed reading about me stuffing my face. Until next time!